Going Electric with Rutgers Today

Ten years ago, we were like everyone else. Our approach to PR at Rutgers University was very traditional:

  • A lot of news releases which didn’t contain much news.
  • Unsuccessful efforts to interest the media in speakers, symposia and awards.

Our methodology was a major problem. We still published most of our content on paper – printed releases faxed to the media and a twice-monthly faculty-staff newspaper. Our web presence was rudimentary; content wasn’t fungible from one audience to another.

Then, like Bob Dylan at Newport, we went electric – putting all of our content online. And much like his experience, the results were liberating.

We finally were able to experiment with new forms of media, including blogs and video, and were able to take content geared for one audience and tweak it to broaden its appeal. We also began to use Google Analytics and other metrics to measure our existing audiences with greater precision – and to see which content connected most effectively with new audiences.

After years of trial and error, the knowledge we gained led to our three guiding principles:

  1. Thanks to the web, the line between internal and external audiences has blurred to the point that it no longer exists.
  2. We can reach audiences directly through the web and indirectly through the media with the same content – if that content is compelling.
  3. Academic does not equal boring. It is possible to connect with broad audiences with content that advances our academic mission. The keys to presenting that content effectively are the essence of “show, don’t tell” – narrative storytelling that follows these rules:
  • Conversational is stronger than didactic.
  • Specific is stronger than abstract.
  • Action is stronger than rhetoric.
  • Highlight interesting individuals as well as the institutions they represent.
  • Present stories that are authentic and credible about your institution (as Rick Allen said in his Portland presentation: “Only say and do the things you actually believe.”).

These principles have guided us in the development and evolution of Rutgers Today, our systemwide news center.

Since we launched Rutgers Today in fall 2009, we have reached more than 40 million readers and viewers through the web, earned media, and social media.

According to Google Analytics, More than half the readers of Rutgers Today – 52.7 percent, to be exact – come from outside the state of New Jersey, where Rutgers is located. Our worldwide reach is especially important at a university with students from more than 140 countries and more than 450,000 alumni living on six continents, which made us excited to see that Rutgers Today has been read in 226 nations and territories over the past five years.

Through the promotional efforts of our office, Rutgers Today content has generated more than 25,000 positive stories about Rutgers University. What quickly became the most exciting surprise was seeing Rutgers Today stories and videos being republished or rebroadcast – word-for-word and frame-for-frame – in whole or in part more than 2,600 times by external print, broadcast, web and social media. We are, in effect, creating our own earned media.

These stories include our news features appearing on major media sites, including a piece republished by The Washington Post about an interesting course offered, and videos such as this broadcast on national news programs, regarding sexual assault on campus. This ensures our messages reach the public unfiltered, and enhances the visibility and credibility of our communications efforts.

Many of our colleagues have looked at the size of Rutgers University – 32 schools, more than 65,000 students – and asked how they can scale this approach with limited resources compared to ours as a larger institution. Our response: We all have limited resources.

The key to success is to make this approach your priority as well as find support from your department (including your boss!) against the inevitable pushback.

Our experience and our data show that this is a more efficient and effective method to advance our academic mission to the broadest possible audiences.

It’s also a far more gratifying way to do our jobs.